WHO DUNNIT? A visit to the Richard III museum in York

There's no escaping this question as you climb the stairs of Monk Bar, one of the gateways in the ancient city walls which has now become the home of the Richard III museum. An effigy of Richard is the first thing you see as you walk through the door: Richard in the dock, on trial for his life. A looped recording gives the prosecutor's case against him: that he murdered, or arranged for the murder of, his nephews Edward and Richard, the two princes in the tower. You then hear the case for the defence, followed by the interrogation of the 'prisoner'.

Richard III has been pilloried throughout the centuries. Every British school child learns the rhyme of the English kings which begins 'Willie, Willie, Henry, Ste ..' and continues through 'Edwards IV, V, Dick the Bad …' It seems that it's only comparatively recently that people have begun to question Shakespeare's portrayal of that evil, murderous hunchback, prompted perhaps by Josephine Tey's classic investigative novel, The Daughter of Time. In this, Inspector Grant, from his hospital bed, conducts an investigation into the life and deeds of Richard III and comes to the unmistakeable conclusion that the murders were, in fact, carried out at the instigation of Henry Tudor some time after the battle of Bosworth.

Certainly the museum gives visitors plenty of information about the life and times of Richard III through a series of posters and displays. Much is made of how well loved Richard was in the north, particularly in his 'fair city of York.' There's a quote from the Council Minute Book dated August 1485: 'King Richard, late lawfully reigning over us, was through great treason ... piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of the city.' It's noted that, during his lifetime, there was never a suggestion that he was responsible for the murder of the princes in the tower; in fact there was no suggestion that they'd even gone missing. A poster detailing Richard's itinerary in 1483 puts him well away from London for most of that year, although he could, of course, have hired an agent: Tyrrel (whose 'confession' only turned up twenty years later after Tyrell was beheaded on Henry's orders, according to Josephine Tey.) But the boys were seen while Richard was away, and there is a suggestion that he might have assumed (if they did disappear while he was still on the throne) that it was because they'd been sent abroad (at his instigation?) to a place of safety.

Likewise, evidence is given that Richard had no hand in declaring Edward's children illegitimate because of a previous marriage. There is, however, a lot of information about Edward's wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and her horde of relatives, and the role some of them played in Richard's betrayal and downfall.

There's a poster titled '10 (alleged) historical murders' which include William Rufus, Beckett, Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI as well as the princes in the tower - although no mention is made of Henry VII's and Henry VIII's killing sprees once they came to the throne! There is, however, detailed information about executions carried out during Richard's short reign: Rivers, Hastings, Thomas Vaughan, Richard Gray, Richard Haute and the Duke of Buckingham, each poster defending Richard's decision 'in his own words'. There are also posters for those he spared: John Morton, Lord Stanley and Elizabeth Woodville, also with Richard's reasons why he decided to let them live. (A decision that signed Richard's death warrant, according to Tey's Inspector Grant.)

Two posters side by side give, on the one hand, Shakespeare's version of Richard (based on a report found amongst Thomas More's papers) which helped form public opinion of 'Dick the Bad' through the centuries. The other poster is titled 'How much of Shakespeare's version is substantiated by history? What conclusions can we draw?' Each 'theory' is then demolished in a subsequent 'comment'. These examples of Tudor propaganda are partly illustrated through an interesting display of portraits of Richard painted through the years. They begin by depicting him with one shoulder slightly higher than another, and end with him sporting a pronounced hunch and a withered arm!

On a lighter note, a series of 'newspaper headlines' from 'The Shield' follow the progress of Richard's trial with screamers like: It's tricky Dicky; Where are the princes, Richard?; Trial latest – Buckingham accused; Judge sums up; and Richard III Trial Verdict.

At the end visitors are invited to write their comments in a 'guilty' or 'not guilty' book (which also included a lot of graffiti!) And there's a sign: 'If you think the two princes were killed, cast your vote for the likely suspect'. A printout gives the choice of Richard III, the Duke of Buckingham, Henry VII and 'other'. According to the ticket seller on duty, the tally tends to put Richard in the lead (at + 30%) with Buckingham and Henry fairly evenly matched in the 20% + range.

Having now reread The Daughter of Time, I'm disappointed that the museum didn't make more of a case against Henry Tudor, or against Buckingham other than suggesting that Buckingham swung his support to Henry Tudor in October 1483, by which time 'he must have known that the boys were dead.'

Perhaps for the curators the jury is still 'out' or perhaps their intention was merely to shed some light on the controversy. And perhaps the fact that so many still believe in Richard's guilt can be explained in the words of Josephine Tey: 'It's an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you. They don't want to have their ideas upset. It rouses some vague uneasiness in them … and they resent it. So they reject it and refuse to think about it. If they were merely indifferent it would be natural and understandable. But it is much stronger than that, much more positive. They are annoyed.' In fact, even the official tourist guide who conducted our walk around York apparently still believes in 'Dick the Bad'. Which begs the question: how 'true' is history anyway?